David Mitchell's new novel, The Bone Clocks, is a
treat for longtime fans and people who've never picked up one of his
books before. It's a decades-spanning saga that switches perspective
from section to section among a wildly disparate group of people — but
the center of it all is Holly Sykes, at the start of the book a
psychically sensitive runaway who gets caught up in a war between two
factions of ancient near-immortals. The Bone Clocks is a deft
and entertaining mix of literary fiction and fantasy — and Mitchell fans
will appreciate the Easter eggs here and there, returning characters
and themes from previous books that begin to tie all Mitchell's books
into one grand universe. This scene is told from the perspective of Ed,
Holly's partner and the father of her child — and also a war journalist
who's about to embark on a dangerous assignment. The Bone Clocks will be published Sept. 2.
O'CLOCK AT night, and all's well, kind of, for now. Olive Sun wants me
flying out again by Thursday at the latest, so I'll have to tell Holly
soon. Tonight, really, so she doesn't make plans for the three of us
next week. Fallujah is the biggest deployment of marines since the
battle for Hue City in Vietnam, and I'm stuck here on the Sussex coast.
Holly'll hit the frigging roof, but I'd better get it over and done
with, and she'll have to calm down for Sharon's wedding tomorrow.
Aoife's asleep in the single bed in the corner of our hotel room. I only
got here after her bedtime, so I still haven't said hi to my daughter,
but the First Rule of Parenting states that you never wake a peacefully
sleeping child. I wonder how Nasser's girls are sleeping tonight, with
dogs barking and gunfire crackling and marines kicking down doors. CNN's
on the flatscreen TV with the sound down, showing footage of marines
under fire on rooftops in Fallujah. I've seen it five times or more and
even the pundits can't think of anything fresh to say until the news
cycle starts up again in a few hours, when Iraq begins a new day. Holly
texted a quarter of an hour ago to say she and the other hens'll be
heading back to the hotel soon. "Soon" could mean anything in the
context of a wine bar, though. I switch off the TV, to prove I'm no war
junkie, and go to the window. Brighton Pier's all lit up like Fairyland
on Friday night, and pop music booms from the fairground at the far
end. By English standards it's a warm spring evening, and the
restaurants and bars on the promenade are at the end of a busy evening.
Couples walk hand in hand. Night buses trundle. Traffic obeys the
traffic laws, by and large. I don't knock a peaceful and
well-functioning society. I enjoy it, for a few days, weeks, even. But I
know that, after a couple of months, a well-ordered life tastes like a
flat, non-alcoholic lager. Which isn't the same as saying I'm addicted
to warzones, as Brendan helpfully implied earlier. That's as ridiculous
as accusing David Beckham of being addicted to playing soccer. Just as
soccer is Beckham's art and his craft, reporting from hot spots is my
art and my craft. I wish I'd said that to the clan earlier.
Aoife giggles in her sleep, then groans sharply. I go over. "You okay, Aoife? It's only a dream."
Aoife complains, "No, silly! The lemon one." Then her eyes flip open
like a doll's in a horror movie: "We're going to a hotel in Brighton
later, 'cause Aunty Sharon's marrying Uncle Pete, and we'll meet you
there, Daddy. I'm a bridesmaid."
I try not to laugh, and stroke
Aoife's hair back from her face. "I know, love. We're all here now, so
you go back to sleep. I'll be here in the morning and we'll all have a
"Good," Aoife pronounces, teetering on the brink of sleep ...
David Mitchell's previous books include The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas.
... she's gone. I pull the duvet over her My Little Pony pajama
top and kiss her forehead, remembering the week in 1997 when Holly and I
made this precious no-longer-quite-so-little life-form. The
Hale-Bopp Comet was adorning the night sky, and thirty-nine members of
the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide in San Diego so their
souls could be picked up by a UFO in the comet's tail and be transported
to a higher state of consciousness beyond human. I rented a cottage in
Northumbria and we had plans to go hiking along Hadrian's Wall, but
hiking didn't turn out to be the principal activity of the week. Now
look at her. I wonder how she sees me. A bristly giant who teleports
into her life and teleports out again for mystifying reasons, perhaps —
not so different from how I saw my own father, I guess, except while I'm
away on various assignments, Dad went away to various prisons. I'd love
to know how Dad saw me when I was a kid. I'd love to know a hundred
things. When a parent dies, a filing cabinet full of all the fascinating
stuff also ceases to exist. I never imagined how hungry I'd be one day
to look inside it.
When I was back in February she was having her period. I hear Holly's key in the door. I feel vaguely guilty.
Not half as guilty as she'll make me feel, though.
having trouble with the lock so I go over, put the chain on, and open
it up a crack. "Sorry, sweetheart," I tell her, in my Michael Caine
voice. "I never ordered no kinky massage. Try next door."
me in," says Holly, sweetly, "or I'll kick you in the nuts." "Nope, I
didn't order no kick in the nuts, neither. Try — " Not so sweetly:
"Brubeck, I need to use the loo!"
"Oh, all right, then." I
unchain the door and stand aside. "Even if you have come home too
plastered to use a key, you dirty stop out."
"The locks in
this hotel are all fancy and burglar-proofed. You need a PhD to open
the damn things." Holly bustles past to the bathroom, peering down at
Aoife in passing. "Plus I only had a few glasses of wine. Mam was there
as well, remember."
"Right, as if Kath Sykes was ever a girl to put the dampeners on a 'wine-tasting session.' "
Holly closes the bathroom door. "Was Aoife okay?" "She woke up for a second, otherwise not a squeak."
She was so excited on the train down, I was afraid she was going to be
up all night dancing on the ceiling." Holly flushes the toilet to
provide a bit of noise cover. I go over to the window again. The funfair
at the end of the pier is winding down, by the look of it. Such a
lovely night. My proposed six-month extension for Spyglass in
Iraq is going to wreck it, I know. Holly opens the bathroom door,
smiling at me and drying her hands. "How did you spend your quiet night
in? Snoozing, writing?"
Her hair's up, she's wearing a low-cut
figure-hugging black dress and a necklace of black and blue stones.
She hardly ever looks like that anymore. "Thinking impure thoughts about
my favorite yummy mummy. Can I help you out of that dress, Miss Sykes?"
"Down, boy." She fusses over Aoife. "We're sharing a room with our daughter, you might have noticed."
I walk over. "I can operate on silent mode." "Not tonight, Romeo. I'm having my period."
is, I haven't been back often enough in the last six months to know
when Holly's period is. "Guess I'll have to make do with a long, slow
" 'Fraid so matey." We kiss, but it's not as long
and slow as advertised, and Holly isn't as drunk as I was half hoping.
When was it that Holly stopped opening her mouth when we kiss? It's like
kissing a zipped-up zip. I think of Big Mac's aphorism: In order to
have sex, women need to feel loved; but in order for men to feel loved,
we need to have sex. I'm keeping my half of the deal — so far as I know —
but sexually, Holly acts like she's forty-five or fifty-five, not
thirty-five. Of course I'm not allowed to complain, because that's
pressurizing her. Once Holly and I could talk about anything, anything,
but all these no-go areas keep springing up. It all makes me ... I'm
not allowed to be sad either, because then I'm a sulky boy who isn't
getting the bag of sweets he thinks he deserves. I haven't cheated on
her — ever — not that Baghdad is a hotbed of sexual opportunity, but
it's depressing still being a fully functioning thirty-five-year-old
male and having to take matters into my own hands so often. The Danish
photojournalist in Tajikistan last year would've been up for it if I'd
been less anxious about how I'd feel when the taxi dropped me off at
Stoke Newington and I heard Aoife yelling, "It's Daaaaddyyy!"
turns back to the bathroom. She leaves the door open, and starts to
remove her makeup. "So, are you going to tell me or not?"
I sit on the edge of the double bed, alert. "Tell you what?"
dabs cotton wool under her eyes. "I don't know yet." "What makes you
think I ... have anything to tell you?" "Dunno, Brubeck. Must be my
I don't believe in psychics but Holly can do a good impression of one. "Olive asked me to stay on in Baghdad until December."
Holly freezes for a few seconds, drops the cotton wool, and turns to me. "But you've already told her you're quitting in June."
"Yeah. I did. But she's asking me to reconsider."
"But you told me you're quitting in June. Me and Aoife."
told her I'd call back on Monday. After discussing it with you."
Holly's looking betrayed. Or as if she's caught me downloading porn. "We
agreed, Brubeck. This would be your final final extension."
"I'm only talking about another six months." "Oh, f'Chrissakes. You said that the last time."
but since I won the Sheehan-Dower Prize I've been — " "And the time
before that. 'Half a year, then I'm out.' " "This'll cover a year of
Aoife's college expenses, Hol." "She'd rather have a living father than a
"That's just" — you can't call angry women "hysterical" these days; it's sexist — "hyperbole. Don't stoop to that."
"Is that what Daniel Pearl said to his partner before he jetted off to Pakistan? 'That's just hyperbole'?"
tasteless. And wrongheaded. And Pakistan's not Iraq." She lowers the
toilet lid and sits on it so we're roughly at eye level.
sick of wanting to puke with fear every time I hear the word 'Iraq' or
'Baghdad' on the radio. I'm sick of hardly sleeping. I'm sick of having
to hide from Aoife how worried I am. Fantastic, you're an in-demand
award-winning journalist, but you have a six-year-old who wants help
riding a bike with no stabilizers. Being a crackly voice for a minute
every two or three days, if the satphone's working, isn't enough. You
are a war junkie. Brendan was right."
"No, I am not. I am a journalist doing what I do. Just as he does what he does and you do what you do."
rubs her head like I'm giving her a headache. "Go, then! Back to
Baghdad, to the bombs taking the front off your hotel. Pack. Go. Back to
'what you do.' If it's more precious than us. Only you'd better get the
tenants out of your King's Cross flat 'cause the next time you're back
in London, you'll be needing somewhere to live." I keep my voice low:
"Will you please fucking listen to yourself?" "No, you fucking listen to
yourfuckingself! Last month you agree to quit in June and come home.
Your high-powered American editor says, 'Make it December.' You say,
'Uh, okay.' Then you tell me. Who are you with, Brubeck? Me and Aoife,
or Olive Sun and Spyglass?"
"I'm being offered another six months' work. That's all."
it's not 'all' 'cause after Fallujah dies down or gets bombed to shit
it'll be Baghdad or Afghanistan Part Two or someplace else, there's
always someplace else, and on and on until the day your luck runs out
and then I'm a widow and Aoife has no dad. Yes, I put up with Sierra
Leone, yes, I survived your assignment in Somalia, but Aoife's older
now. She needs a dad."
"Suppose I told you, 'No, Holly, you
can't help homeless people anymore. Some have AIDS, some have knives,
some are psychotic. Quit that job and work for ... for Greenland
supermarkets instead. Put all those people skills of yours to use on
dried goods. In fact, I'm ordering you to, or I'll kick you out.' How
would you respond?"
"F'Chrissakes, the risks are different."
Holly lets out an angry sigh. "Why bring this up in the middle of the
bloody night? I'm Sharon's matron of honor tomorrow. I'll look like a
hungover panda. You're at a crossroads, Brubeck. Choose."
I make an ill-advised quip: "More of a T-junction, technically." "Right. I'd forgotten. It's all a joke to you, isn't it?"